Second Life may have just got a second life. The much-publicized virtual world has slipped out of the mainstream in recent months, after the oft-repeated stories of virtual marriages and virtual entrepreneurs died down. It has 18 million registered accounts, but there’s no reliable figure on how many of these are active players who sign in regularly.
The other hugely popular virtual world-cum-social network site, the teen-focused Habbo Hotel, has also disappeared from media attention. The site, famous for the 2007 case of the Dutch teenager who was arrested in the real world for stealing virtual furniture, is going through a period of consolidation—with three of its country-specific sites shutting down last year.
While combat-focused virtual worlds, or Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) such as World of Warcraft (WoW), continue to remain hugely successful, with WoW holding about 62% of the MMOG market, “social” virtual worlds such as Second Life seemed to have hit a stumbling block with both their business and usage models.
Google’s attempt at one, a free service called Lively, was shut down within six months of its launch in 2008. Sony’s PlayStation Home, in development for nearly five years, received a tepid response on launch, and has consistently struggled with quality and balance issues.
But a new crop of social virtual worlds—informed by the popularity of Facebook games such as Farmville—have proven spectacularly successful in the last year, and are resuscitating the near-comatose social virtual worlds. The strange thing? These new wunderkinds are all aimed at kids.
Home on the web: A house on Chimpoo
Club Penguin: This social MMOG, where you create a cartoon penguin character and roam around a winter-themed virtual world, has been around since 2005—but it took off only after its acquisition by the Walt Disney Company in 2007.
Club Penguin uses an interesting variation of the “freemium” model that is common to most Internet games. Playing is free, but certain “premium” features require a subscription or payment. In Club Penguin, you accumulate virtual currency by participating in various activities in the game, but spending that virtual money requires a premium account. The service has been criticized for promoting consumerism, as it is aimed at children and incorporates the earning and spending of virtual money as an optimal way of playing the game. The Disney Interactive Media group that houses Club Penguin earned $155 million (Rs707 crore) in revenue in the quarter ended 3 April, a significant figure for a virtual world that is largely free to play.
Webkinz World: Club Penguin’s major competitor, a stuffed-toy company called Webkinz, takes a similar real-world approach to generating subscriptions. The company, around since 2005, sells stuffed toys at toy retail shops. But each stuffed toy comes with a free limited-time subscription to the virtual world Webkinz World, where you play as the virtual representation of the stuffed toy that you just bought. Extended play requires a premium account, making it an alluring, and admittedly disturbing, rabbit hole for potential subscribers.
Chimpoo: India isn’t far behind either. Internet firm Games2Win launched Chimpoo.com in March—a clone of Club Penguin that plans to similarly introduce a subscription model (Rs250 a month) for a premium account. The world here too revolves around a set of arcade games and social interaction, and much shopping—clothes, furniture and accessories for your virtual Chimpoo.
But what’s really in it for the children? The sites are all colourful and vibrant, and feature a range of games and activities to engage in. They’re certainly fun, but their pedagogical value (something that exists with most video games) is dubious at best. The worlds are structured around being effective at attracting children, and as a result many of the activities seek to actively encourage the spending of money. Most of these sites are also very cautious about child safety and encourage parent involvement, though the same online dangers—identity theft and potential for fraud—plague these virtual worlds. Tread with care.
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